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Friday Guest Column: Man Bites Dog? Educators Use Technology to Improve Writing

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Arie Korporaal is the Executive Director of the California Southeast Educational Technology Consortium (SEETC), Meg Jimenez is the District Technology Resource Teacher for El Rancho USD and one of eight district representatives on the SEETC and Norbert Genis is the Superintendent of El Rancho USD.

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One of the greatest challenges teachers face is improving students’ writing skills. In many school districts across the country, that challenge is compounded by a lack of resources and large class sizes. This was the situation for teachers in Southern California in 2004.

They faced crowded classrooms and frustrated students, all vying for much-needed attention. Plus an increasing number were (and remain) English as a Second Language students or English Language Development (ELD) students as they are referred to in California, many of whom struggle to keep pace with their English-speaking peers.

Indeed, the number of ELD students nationwide is growing two and half times faster than those for whom English is their primary language, according to national statistics. This creates a unique challenge for teachers, who now have to do more than impart academic skills. They must also support students’ English proficiency, help them adjust to the U.S. school setting, and help them adapt to American culture.

It’s a tall order. Teachers found it drove them to spend most of their time on group instruction and grading, to the detriment of individual students. The educators, whose districts are members of the SouthEast Educational Technology Consortium (SEETC), believed the key to unlocking students’ potential was to focus on boosting students’ writing skills.

They also believed they could meet or exceed California’s academic standards by expanding student access to computers and Web-based productivity tools. Pairing the two ideas, the SEETC applied for an Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) Grant, established as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The grant focused on improving students’ writing through technology.

Of the 20 applicants, eight of the sixteen school districts that make up the SEETC were awarded the largest part of the grant. More than $11 million was distributed among the eight school districts, touching some 33,000 middle school students.

After an extensive search of classroom technology platforms, the SEETC settled on Vantage Learning’s MY Access! instructional writing program. The program was implemented at the ABC Unified, Compton Unified, Downey Unified, East Whittier City, El Rancho Unified, Norwalk/La Mirada Unified, South Whittier, and Whittier City Schools Districts.

That’s because MY Access! provides accurate feedback on student essays and analyzes over 350 semantic, syntactic, and discourse characteristics, and scores students on focus and meaning, organization, content and development, language use and style, mechanics and conventions, and overall writing proficiency.

The Web-based writing environment instantly scores student essays, and provides immediate remedial instruction that engages and motivates students.

MY Access! gives ELD teachers the ability to adapt the program based on students’ English proficiency. Its unique translation feature lets ELD students write in English, but receive feedback and corrections in their native language.

But technology in classrooms does little good without the proper training for students and teachers alike. The SEETC leadership put a 12-day institute in place to introduce coaching concepts and tools to support technology integration and innovation in the classroom. During eight days of targeted teacher training, over 500 middle school language arts teachers learned about MY Access!. “Coach/mentors” introduced teachers to the MY Access! technologies, to ensure their skills were sharp, and that integration with lesson plans and classrooms went smoothly. They also added 510 new laptops and projection units to classrooms.

The rollout could not have been better. In just days, MY Access! became an integral part of daily writing instruction.

Fast forward to 2007. The classroom technology initiative is three years running, and student writing proficiency has measurably improved—by 40 percent. Students score at least a four on a six-point scale.

And teachers report students who once struggled with writing are now vying for their turn at the computer each day. For the first time in anyone’s memory, there’s a palpable enthusiasm for writing in the classroom.

The technology also freed teachers to provide personalized instruction to the students who need it most. That’s because the software’s artificial intelligence automatically provides instant feedback, individualized remediation, and accurate grading, eliminating tasks that once required gobs of teachers’ time.

EETT funding ended in 2007, but thanks to the overwhelming success of their initiative, the eight school districts of the SEETC have been able to sustain their technology programs.

2 Comments

Here's another man bites dog post. I'm usually suspicious of online tutorials, but I've often sensed that online writing software would be relatively more effective. You identified the greatest factor - that given the challenges of teaching to kids with diverse levels of achievement, it is increasing difficult to be able to give one-on-one time to struggling writers. It is difficult enough to go to all parts of the room to help every kid identify a nation on a map or help with a vocabulary word, but to have the quality time to diagnose a problem and provide individual assistance in writing can be impossible.

Plus, how many teachers do we have that are qualified to teach writing? When I was in school in the 60's, I only had a couple of teachers during my 12 public school years who were qualified enough. (Mostly, I'm happy with the 1-12 education I recieved, although it often reinforced the maxim, "everything I need I learned in 2nd grade. In writing, its everything I learned I learned during eight years of grad school.)

Then when you consider the deplorable quality of writing tests that are graded by humans, then why not try something new?

When I taught AP, the real writing instruction occurred after class or in phone conversations that often lasted over an hour. No computer could have replaced me. When I teach regular classes, however, I've made a sad but calculated decision to drop most one-on-one writing instruction, even though I teach history and refuse to give standardized tests. Even a very imperfect writing program would still be better than my efforts. And I think I'd like working with a flawed writing program. Just as my kids love to poke fun at my misspellings on the blackboard, I'd think we could enjoy a contest where we appreciate the computer's foul-ups.

Writing on a computer is quicker and more fun for students. Not only are spelling checkers and dictionaries available, but it is much easier to go back and edit.

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